My Friend Fred by much loved and awarded author Frances Watts, illustrated by A. Yi (published by Allen & Unwin) is ideal for both cat and dog lovers. Even though they are very different from each other, the cat and dog in this tale can still be friends.
The story is told from the perspective of the elusive cat who talks about “My friend Fred” with an indulgent, almost bemused, affection. Although we see the dog and its funny antics, we see only parts of the cat for most of the narrative and, of course, hear its voice as it talks about Fred.
Anticipation, prediction and repetition of “My friend Fred …” abound in this picture book that is deservedly shortlisted for the 2020 Children’s Book Council of Australia award in the Early Childhood category.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Frances.
Where are you based, what is your background and how are you involved in the children’s literature community?
I’m Swiss-born, Sydney-raised, and I live in Sydney still. My mother is a voracious reader and I certainly got that gene. I don’t think I ever considered a career that didn’t revolve around books in some way. While I was doing a PhD in literature at Macquarie University (and trying to imagine what that bookish career might look like), I worked part-time in a bookshop and bought a lot of children’s books with my staff discount; was a research assistant for the professor of children’s literature; and then was invited to teach in the children’s literature course. A big eye-opener for me was reading Perry Nodelman’s Words about Pictures. It’s a wonderful introduction to the importance of the visual narrative and made me really excited about what picture books can do.
When I finished my degree I wanted to work with books in a more hands-on way. I got a job as an editor in an educational publishing house and two years later moved into children’s publishing. I worked as a children’s book editor and commissioning editor for ten years, and was lucky enough to work with and learn from both talented colleagues and many authors and illustrators whose work I still love and admire to this day. (Indeed, I met some of own close collaborators back then: David Legge, Judy Watson and Ann James.) I left children’s publishing shortly after my first book—Kisses for Daddy (ill. David Legge)—was published, and these days I divide my time between writing for young readers and freelance editing adult fiction and narrative non-fiction. I keep the two worlds quite separate: as an editor, my role is to develop and nurture other people’s creativity, and I love it. But my writing life is about expressing my voice, my creativity, and I feel privileged to be able to do that.
Your title My Friend Fred rolls off the tongue in a very satisfying way. What is its significance?
I’m glad you find it satisfying. I love language, and the sound of words is very important to me. Alliteration, assonance, rhythm, rhyme. I’m always ‘listening’ when I write (and when I read, for that matter—any books, not just my own). Because the structure of My Friend Fred involved repetition of the introductory phrase, I wanted it to be fun to say and to feel satisfying every time it was said.
Could you please introduce your two characters?
Fred the dachshund is an enthusiast; he throws himself into every experience. His friend, the narrator, is a cat…a bit more reserved, more watchful, more inclined to hang back rather than rush in. So they are different, but what they have in common is their acceptance of each other—more than acceptance: love for each other. Difference doesn’t preclude friendship; friendship accommodates and celebrates differences.
It’s clever how you haven’t given the cat a name in the book. Do you have a name for it in your head?
I don’t actually—I think because the cat lives in my head. It’s not that the first-person voice becomes my voice, but my voice becomes that of the character…if that makes sense!
Most of your books contain humour. What is the type or source of humour in this one?
You’re right—humour is almost always present in my work; a warm humour, I hope. For me, the humour in My Friend Fred comes from the narrator’s droll observation of (and perplexity at) what readers recognise as Fred’s quintessential doggishness, and the contrast with Fred’s own exuberance. They’re a classic ‘odd couple’.
A.Yi’s illustrations suit your story well. How would you describe her style? Which picture particularly appeals to you and why?
A. Yi’s illustrations are superb—so expressive and full of character, with a great sense of movement that makes the book feel fresh and lively. She has invested Fred with so much charm. It’s hard to choose a favourite picture, but I do particularly love the chastened-looking Fred in ‘My friend Fred loves to dig holes. He knows he shouldn’t’ and his expression in ‘My friend Fred wears a coat when it’s cold. He thinks he looks handsome. I’m not sure.’
What was your collaborative process with A. Yi and whose idea was it to only show parts of the cat for most of the book?
From the beginning I always wanted to have the cat present but not too present—there had to be some uncertainty about the narrator (on the first reading at least) so that anyone could be Fred’s friend (and the lack of a name ties into this too). How that was expressed on the page is all down to Anne, though, and I just couldn’t love her work more.
What impact has being shortlisted for the CBCA Early Childhood award this year had on you or your book?
It is such an absolute delight to have a book on an unexpected friendship shortlisted in a year that is proving rather short on reasons to celebrate…but is also reminding us in so many ways how important it is that we accept and care for each other, look out for each other. I’m particularly enjoying when teachers and teacher librarians share with me how they are using the book with their students to talk about friendship and difference. (Also, I am getting some really cute drawings of Fred, and they are really making me smile.)
Are you a cat or dog person?
I am on Team Cat—but I do make an exception for dachshunds. We had a dachshund, Schatsie, back in Switzerland and he very kindly shared his bone with me. And dachshunds are so personable, one can’t not love them.
You have a very impressive backlist of awarded and other books for young people. Could you tell us about some of them, please?
When I was a children’s editor I used to say that I was the only person I knew who didn’t have a book in them…apparently I was wrong! I had many, many books in me, and still do. The book that changed my life was the picture book Kisses for Daddy, illustrated by the wonderful David Legge. That was the book that opened the floodgates. It also marked the start of my collaboration with David Legge, which has been a true delight (Parsley Rabbit’s Book about Books, Captain Crabclaw’s Crew, The Fearsome, Frightening Ferocious Box and It’s a Story, Rory!)
Early on I started writing junior fiction too, a series that is very close to my heart: Extraordinary Ernie and Marvellous Maud, illustrated by the extraordinary and marvellous Judy Watson. Judy and I have also created two picture books together (Goodnight, Mice! and Leonard Doesn’t Dance). (I was so thrilled that her book with Lesley Gibbes, Searching for Cicadas, was shortlisted for the Eve Pownall Award this year.) There have been more picture books (A Very Quacky Christmas, illustrated by Ann James, a dear friend and one of my favourite illustrators, and A Rat in a Stripy Sock, illustrated by my favourite person full stop: my partner David Francis), and there has been more junior fiction (the Sword Girl series, illustrated by the much-missed Gregory Rogers) and two historical novels for young adults (The Raven’s Wing and The Peony Lantern), because I love history and somehow everything I love ends up in my work. One of my guiding lights is E.B. White, and he once said: ‘All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.’ That’s how I feel about my books—which brings me to my 2020 releases: a picture book, Say Cheese! with glorious illustrations by Marjorie Crosby-Fairall (there is no actual cheese in the book, but I love cheese) and The Chicken’s Curse, a middle grade novel set in ancient Rome. I’ve missed a few, but that’s probably enough to be going on with…
What are you writing or working on now?
I’m working on another middle grade novel (which I can’t really talk about, because I’m one of those writers who needs to keep it all locked up inside), and David Legge and I are (as ever) playing around with our next picture book idea.
What have you been reading that you would like to recommend?
I loved every sentence of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. I then read a book Mantel recommended set in 1348, To Calais, in Ordinary Time by James Meek—brilliant. I’m now about halfway through (an advance copy of) What Are You Going Through, the new novel by Sigrid Nunez, and it’s as terrific as The Friend.
How can your readers contact you?
Readers can email me on email@example.com or message me via Facebook or Instagram.
Fred and his friend are wonderful characters and the book, My Friend Fred, will be greatly enjoyed by young children and those who share books with them. Thanks for your very generous and interesting responses, Frances, and all the very best with this and your upcoming books.
Thank you very much, Joy—I’ve been really enjoying your interviews with this year’s CBCA shortlisted creators.
Teacher Notes are available from Allen & Unwin’s website.